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THE Lowly Peon

24 October 2011, 12:02am

I worked in the service industry a long time. Sometimes front of the house, sometimes back of the house, sometimes as an expeditor. And in all those years, I worked for tips. Rather, I worked because it was my job (big difference), and earned tips as a result. And in all those years, and in every year since, I've wondered why the hell the system works in such a way that we are obligated to leave money on top of already expensive prices, and the servers rely on people doing so to even earn minimum wage.

Of all the servers I worked with, none thinks about the actual value, they only look at the percent. For example, a party of like twenty at the Broadmoor once tipped something like $250 on a big bill. It worked out to 17%. The front server exclaimed, "what?! only 17%?!"

I've said many times before if I open a restaurant I'll make tipping forbidden. I'll raise the prices a bit, pay my servers fairly, and they'll work because it's their job. The service in China is a million times better, and they never get tips.

And what makes me quite angry is not this absurd tipping rule, but when the lines are a bit hazy. In Houston, for example, an overwhelming majority of restaurants are the kind where you order at the counter and they give you a number, then bring you your food. This is tricky:

  • You need to tip, allegedly based on the quality of their service, before you ever receive any service.
  • You are doing, I'd say, more than half the work, but are still expected to tip the same as if they were actually waiting on you.
  • If you tip what you actually think is fair (I'd say 10%, since they're only doing about half the work), they'll probably piss in your food.

I hate these kind of restaurants. You can level with the people taking your order, who probably make bank sitting behind the counter ringing up orders and somehow getting 20% of the cash coming in. But if you level with them, they're almost required to say "tip whatever you feel is fair," but you know they're thinking of that darn* percent.

And here's a case where it's even worse (if you can believe it).

There's a great hippy vegetarian place near our home. It's easily walkable. They have free delivery, and in our frequent trips there, we never get delivery, but instead enjoy the walk. The last time I went there to get delivery, I had a nice long chat with the girl behind the counter about tipping on takeout orders. She said that about half the people leave nothing, and the other half leave a few dollars, usually the small cash they get as change. I appreciated her honesty and gave her a healthy 30-40% tip.

It's raining a bit today, and I'm wiped out from a long bike ride, so I called to get delivery. Apparently the changed the policy, no more delivery. So I walked over there to pick up our order. It came to about $20. As she handed me that dreaded receipt with the extra lines at the bottom, I said "you know, the last time I was here the girl said tips on takeout aren't necessary," and left her $1. She responded, appalled, "really? Someone who works here said that?" "Yeah," I said, "she said for takeout they don't do anything, so why would you tip." And this girl said in about five different ways that they work for tips. So she guilted me into leaving a tip. I left only $2 and mumbled about how it'll balance out next time. She said, "I mean, we check to make sure your order is right!" and emphasized the "right". And she said my name at the end of each sentence, as if to remind me she won't forget who I am next time.

What a load of bull poop*.

[24 October 2011, 2:46pm]

New campaign: "just say no."

(thanks, @scottsouders)

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[24 October 2011]

This is why I always pay with cash at places like that. No tip line on the receipt!

It is ridiculous to think that you need to tip when picking up your pizza or something for carryout. They haven't waited on you at all! Tipping shouldn't just happen because people want it. Tipping should happen because they earned it.

I even feel uncomfortable about tipping at places like Il Vicino, which are obviously more upscale than something like Panera. But I guess they do bring you out your food. But so does Noodles & Company.

I'm okay with tipping when it is appropriate, and I tip well. But for carry out? That's ridiculous!



[25 October 2011]

(Okay, this got a little tl;dr. Apologies in advance. I am kinda opinionated about this! But if someone wants to disagree I promise that I'll be civil. I know that I don't have a great track record for being civil when people disagree with me, but I'm changing.)

Obviously, my opinions are substantially formed by my own experience in food service, just like Peter's are. As I indicated on twitter earlier, I think tipping should pretty much always be considered obligatory, including for takeout and for fast-casual places on a case-by-case basis (basically, whenever tipping is customary at the particular establishment). (If tipping is just mildly encouraged - say, like the fishbowl that's at the register at Chipotle - then I always just leave a bucks or two.) I am strongly pro-tipping, whenever tipping is customary. (At times when it isn't, then I am strongly anti-tipping, because nothing makes a situation awkward like trying to figure out what someone's trying to "tell" you by giving you some random cash. So weird.)

The thing that's always in my mind when it comes to tips is: this could be someone's living. The fact is, pretty much every establishment (outside of franchises like Applebee's) is run a bit differently. I have no way of knowing how tips are distributed (especially for less common transactions like takeout), whether that distribution is fair, whether the servers (and bussers, expediters, hosts, etc.) are paid a fair wage, or anything else about the pay structure at the restaurant. I do know that MOST people who work in food service get paid for crap. MOST people who do it full time live off of the tips that they earn. My $5 - $10 tip COULD BE (and probably is) someone's living. For this reason alone, I am in support of giving them that money.

At the very least, I am not under such extreme financial duress that it really makes that big a difference to me. I mean, I don't ever order enough food (or sufficiently expensive food) for tipping to be a real burden. Maybe occasionally I'll think "Oh, that's a little higher with the tip included than I expected," but most of the time I've already adjusted the prices on the menu in my mind to include tax and tip, at least roughly. It's unlikely to make a big difference to me, but it could make a huge difference to the recipient of my tip. Even if they don't need every $5 (and PLENTY of folks working in food service do), getting a good tip makes SUCH a difference in how a server's day is going, compared to getting a crappy tip. Even ONE good or bad tip can make a huge difference on a server's attitude. (Again, this is drawn mostly from my own experience.) If I were poorer and couldn't afford to tip well, then I'd eat out less, not tip less.

Maybe the entire pay structure for restaurants could be changed. I think Peter presents an interesting model: higher prices, no tips, only one minimum wage instead of two. It's a great idea, but it's not how restaurants are run right now. I know it sounds melodramatic, but lots of people have very little choice about what job they take, especially in a crappy economy. Lots of people working in food service live in poverty.

It would be great if I could feel some assurance that my government implements programs that help its citizens, but I just pay my taxes and try to hope that at least SOME good is being done with them. I would love it if I could figure out a way to buy the things that I need to live comfortably and still be sure that humans and animals and the earth weren't harmed in order for that to happen, but instead I'm just vegan and I try to buy fairly traded products and figure that doing something is better than doing nothing. And it would be pretty cool to KNOW that people who work at the restaurants where I eat were all making a livable wage, but there's simply no way to know that for sure because of the tips-based pay structure. So I tip generously because it's literally the least I can do.


THE Lowly Peon

[05 November 2011]

Poppy: Sorry, it's been a long time and i still haven't responded. I suppose I'm not really sure how to, because you do raise some good points.

Essentially, I feel the whole system is broken. The incentive to work hard should be simply because it's your job. I work hard, I work long hours sometimes, and I don't get tips or overtime. I do it because it's my responsibility, and I'd lose my job if I didn't. In many other parts of the world, it's the same thing. Why should service industry people be expected to make close to nothing and then rely on tips? Why should service industry people expect to make close to nothing and then rely on tips?

How many times have you given a small tip, because it was a deservedly small tip, and then been afraid to go to the same place again for fear that someone will spit in your food? That doesn't sound like a good review system. Furthermore, my idea of a "bad" tip is 18%. If another guy's "good" tip is that same 18%, how is the server to interpret the review? S/he won't, but will instead just say "oh, 18%. Meh."

I know I won't change the system by writing a blog on Avalantern, and I know I won't change the system by leaving no tip for servers who are working on tips. But I do think it's important to point out that it is a broken system. It seems arbitrary for many cases whether or not to include a tip line on the receipt vs just having a tip jar at the counter. And why in the hell should I need to tip for a server who did nothing but carry my take-out bag from the kitchen window to the counter? How is that any more tip-worthy than the guys who actually cooked the food?!

I think my sister's advice was the best: next time, I'm going to talk to the manager. Not to complain or say what the server (can I even call her a server? she sits at the counter and rings up orders.) said to me. I won't mention any names. I'll simply state that I think it's unfair that take-out people should work on tips. They should be making full pay, because it is unreasonable to expect me, the customer, to leave tips, and it is unreasonable to expect them, the take-out people, to rely on tips.



[07 November 2011]

The point Poppy made that resonated most with me is that the 2-5 dollar tip at places like that means not much to me but means a lot to the people that work there. I have the lucky position in life to not have to stress about money (at least for now), so why should I be stingy about such a small amount? Hopefully if I am ever in that position, people will be similarly generous.